The Top 5 Sites Crowdsourcing for Your Health

Crowdsourcing. Some say it’s the way of the future. The premise powers everything from Wikipedia and YouTube to Threadless and Kickstarter. It is used to help find missing people, fund startups, spark competition — even create Super Bowl commercials. But what is crowdsourcing really — and what does it have to do with health care?

Crowdsourcing refers to the outsourcing of a particular task to a wide range of people (quite often an online community) to get a job done more quickly and/or more efficiently. It is based on the idea that more hands — or heads or experiences — are better than one. Jeff Rowe and Mark Robinson of Wired magazine first coined the term in 2005, when describing how businesses were using the Internet to outsource work to individuals.

In a field that is characterized by high standards, rigorous education and strict regulations, the idea of crowdsourcing in the health care industry might seem implausible. However, there are a number of different ways crowdsourcing is being used in the field and making a real impact in innovative ways.

Take for example:

  1. HealthMap
    Created as a side project by two colleagues at the Children’s Hospital in Boston, HealthMap.org monitors outbreaks such as Swine Flu and SARS around the world. Using an hourly web crawler, it aggregates thousands of reports in seven languages, enabling the public and health professionals to track disease trends in real time on the website and a smartphone app. On a typical day the site receives around 1,000 visits, but when there are major outbreaks, that number climbs up to 200,000.
  2. Sickweather
    Similar to how a Doppler radar scans the skies for signs of bad weather, Sickweather.com searches your social networks — like Facebook and Twitter — for indicators of illness. It allows users to track conditions, compare symptoms and measure the proliferation of a virus in a specific region. From allergies to asthma, strep throat to stress, the website tracks the prevalence of over 25 different conditions.
  3. Google Flu Trends  
    Every day, millions of people go online to research health-related topics. Google aggregates this information and uses it to estimate the current level of weekly influenza activity throughout the United States. Because the general frequency of certain Google search queries is highly correlated with the percentage of physician visits in which a patient presents influenza-like symptoms, Google believes this kind of information can be used to help improve early detection.
  4. Global Public Health Intelligence Network
    Managed by Health Canada’s Centre for Emergency Preparedness and Response (CEPR), the Global Public Health Intelligence Network (GPHIN) is a subscription-based service that monitors Internet media, such as news wires and websites, in nine languages in order to help detect and report potential disease outbreaks or other health threats around the world.
  5. CrowdMed 
    “Get a second opinion.” That is standard advice when it comes to the diagnosis of a medical condition. But how about a third — or even a fourth opinion? CrowdMed.com believes that diagnosis should be a team effort and invites everyone —practitioners, patients and the public at large — to be an “MD” (medical detective). By harnessing “the wisdom of crowds” to help solve complicated medical cases, the website is quickly becoming a popular “go-to” destination for patients with medical questions, as well as a trusted source of medical answers.

Crowdsourcing’s biggest benefit is its ability to aggregate more information, ideas and experiences to potentially provide answers or a solution to a particular topic. A number of health care experts and practitioners believe that it is an extremely powerful tool — particularly in the realm of public health — that can be used to help reduce costs, make health care more efficient and save lives.

For example, according to American physician and author Dr. Larry Brilliant, GPHIN has helped prevent national pandemics — including SARS in 2003 and a bird flu with origins in Iran in 2010 — by detecting early outbreaks of these epidemics months ahead of the World Health Organization (WHO).

One of crowdsourcing’s drawbacks is the ability to gauge the quality of information. To date, there has not been a lot of work documented to support the use of crowdsourcing in health care and medical research. Inevitably, there will need to be rules and procedures in place before evidence from crowdsourcing tools can be used in peer reviewed journals or pharmaceutical testing.

While the future of crowdsourcing and its role in the medical realm remains to be seen, it’s exciting to see how technology is working to facilitate and support innovative new approaches to health care.